Could meditation leave your anxious child feeling worse?

Even with practice, some kids find meditation stressful, says psychologist Dr Sarah Hughes. iStock.
Even with practice, some kids find meditation stressful, says psychologist Dr Sarah Hughes. iStock.  

If you're the parent of a child with anxiety, no doubt you've been advised at some point to try to get them to meditate.

Meditation is widely acknowledged as an effective relaxation tool. But what if meditation could actually be making your child's anxiety worse instead of better?

Researchers from Coventry University in the UK have found that about one in 12 people who try meditation experience an unwanted effect, usually a worsening in depression or anxiety, or even the onset of these conditions for the first time.

Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock 

"For most people [meditation] works fine but it has undoubtedly been overhyped and it's not universally benevolent," said Miguel Farias, one of the researchers behind the work, according to The New Scientist.

The Coventry University researchers reviewed dozens of studies on meditation and found that 8 per cent of those who tried it experienced negative effects. 

"People have experienced anything from an increase in anxiety up to panic attacks," said Farias. They also found instances of psychosis or thoughts of suicide.

But don't dismiss meditation as a means to improving your child's anxiety too quickly, advises clinical psychologist and parenting expert Dr Sarah Hughes. The theory suggests it should work well.

"In theory, by deliberately paying attention to the present moment, meditation can help kids with anxiety to manage their worry and distress," she says. 

"If a child's intensely focused on the present, they can't at the same time be focused on their worry and anxiety, so mindfulness can act as a circuit breaker of sorts, and reduce anxious symptoms."  

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That doesn't mean it will work straight away for everyone, of course. Dr Hughes says it can take some time.

"Probably the most important thing to keep in mind is that mindfulness is a skill — it's not necessarily going to offer an immediate solution.

"Some kids describe feeling calmer and less anxious following guided meditation, but most kids need lots of practice before they start deriving any real benefit. I usually suggest that parents help kids to practise mindfulness meditation daily for four to five weeks before they make a call about whether meditation is helping or not."

But there may come a time when you realise that mindfulness and meditation is not working.  

"Even with practice, some kids find meditation stressful," says Dr Hughes. "Some because they find it hard to sit still and pay attention — especially at the end of the day — some because they struggle to tolerate the process of learning a new skill (and one they're not immediately good at), and others because they find focusing on bodily sensations like breathing triggering rather than relaxing. 

"For lots of kids, practice helps to overcome these roadblocks, but some kids just won't every take to meditation and that's okay."

And if meditation doesn't work for your child, there are still plenty of other ways to help them deal with their feelings of anxiety.  

"It's possible to still achieve the goals of mindful meditation without actually meditating," says Dr Hughes. 

"Any task that helps your child to be in the present will achieve the same end goal. Any activity can be done mindfully, but activities that require your child to think and move will hold your child's attention better than tasks that don't require much movement, like watching TV or reading.  

"Colouring in, puzzles, throwing a ball against the wall, or making bracelets out of beads are all good options for younger kids.  For older kids, find-a-word puzzles, yoga, or knitting are good options too. 

"And a general tip: asking your child to tell you what they're doing as they're doing it is a good way to help them stay 'mindful' and focused on the task at hand."